Phoenician Oxen Earn 'A' for Effort

Rob Kyff on

Why is "A" the first letter of our alphabet? Therein lies a "tail."

The ancient Phoenicians, who devised the precursor of our English alphabet some 3,000 years ago, depended heavily on oxen for the necessities of life, e.g., plowing, hauling, clothing, $10 ox milk lattes. The ox was so important that the Phoenicians called the first letter of their alphabet "aleph," meaning "ox."

In fact, the Phoenicians actually drew their letter A to look like the head of an ox -- well, at least the tilted head of an ox. It resembled our letter K, with its two diagonals representing the ox's horns.

When the Greeks adopted this Phoenician letter as their letter "alpha," they rotated the K 90 degrees, so it now looked like a horizontal line balancing on the legs of an isosceles triangle. Then they shortened the line and moved it between the legs to create A. (And you thought the hardest way to get an A was to study!)

As Wilfred Funk explains in his classic book "Word Origins," several other English letters began as representations of physical objects.

Perhaps the second-most important necessity for the Phoenicians was a house, so the second letter of their alphabet was B, called "beth," which resembled their two-chambered houses. Beth survives in the Hebrew word "Bethlehem," which means "house of food."

The Phoenicians represented a doorway in a house with an isosceles triangle. This symbol became the Phoenician letter "daleth" (door), which the Greeks adopted as their letter "delta," and eventually became our letter D.


The Phoenicians, who were great sailors, used a zigzag line called "mem" to represent the waves of the sea. This symbol became the first letter of their word for water. Adopted by the Greeks as "mu," it became the English M, which, if you squint your eyes and hold a conch shell up to your ear, still resembles the rolling ocean.

Phoenicia was no Camelot, but it WAS a camel lot. So, it's not surprising that two of our letters derive from symbols related to camels. Our whip-lean L comes from the Phoenician letter "lamed," which began as a word-sign for a whip used to drive camels.

As for the camel itself, some scholars believe the Phoenician letter G, which had a high, curved top, began as a representation not of the animal's hump, but of its swooping neck. The Phoenician G became the Greek "gamma," and the Greek word for camel was "kamelos," from "gamelos," literally, "thing that looks like a G."

Now you're a G wiz!


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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